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U.S. freight railroads, labor unions start collective bargaining round

Trucks haul next to railroad tracks. (Photo credit: BNSF)

An earlier version incorrectly attributed quotations from NRLC to the labor unions. FreightWaves regrets the error.

The U.S. freight railroads have started a new collective bargaining round with 12 labor unions, an association representing the railroads said on November 1. 

The National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), a group representing more than 30 railroads including almost all of the Class I railroads, said the discussions come at a time when the industry is tackling issues such as automation and safety, systemic declines for commodities such as coal, renewed regulatory interest, operational changes implemented by the railroads and global trade uncertainty. 

Train crew sizes will be another issue that both sides will discuss during this collective bargaining round. Both the unions and the railroads have been filing lawsuits related to state laws that have defined train crew size and the Federal Railroad Administration’s decision to stop pursuing a rulemaking requiring a minimum crew size.

“This is not the first time in the industry’s long history that railroads and our employees have faced tough challenges,” said Brendan Branon, chairman of the NRLC and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, the representative for freight railroads in national bargaining. “But through thoughtful leadership and a willingness to meet our challenges head on, together we can ensure railroads continue to fuel the American economy. We look forward to a constructive bargaining round and reaching agreements to secure a successful future for the industry.”

The Railway Labor Act defines how the freight railroads and unions negotiate. Collective bargaining agreements are in place indefinitely. The most recent collective bargaining round occurred from 2014 to 2018.

Although the contracts don’t have expiration dates, they do have reopener dates in which the parties can initiate a new round of bargaining. Should the parties proceed, they provide notices to each other that include the contractual changes they’re seeking. The railroads gave these notices to the unions on November 1, and the unions have also provided their notices to the NRLC.

Some of the changes that the railroads are requesting are adjusting compensation to market conditions and comparable industries; developing cost-sharing and plan design for healthcare; and defining work rule issues such as train crew staffing. 

Union leaders said they looked forward to talks. Among the unions represented are the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the American Train Dispatchers Association and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation union – Transportation Division, known as SMART-TD.

“We are pleased to announce the creation of the Coordinated Bargaining Coalition as we are on the threshold of the most critical round of national bargaining in a generation,” union leaders said in a joint statement. “Our Coalition is founded on two key values that we all share. One is that we understand the importance of each Union’s autonomy to pursue membership-specific goals within a framework of broad solidarity to defend and improve the wages, benefits and working conditions of our members. The other is that we will spare no effort to defeat the attack by the railroads on the very foundation of our members’ economic security.”

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.